tv Talk to Al Jazeera Al Jazeera September 15, 2013 10:30pm-11:01pm EDT
>> reza aslan, author and scholar. he a muslim who was once an evan evangelical christian. >> when a muslim who starts to write about jesus, all of a sudden the knives comes out. >> the life and times of jesus of nazareth. reza aslan. pleasure to have you. >> thank you for having me. >> look at the conversation you started with this book,
"zealot", the life and times of jesus of nazareth. the jesus that so many of us came to know through the bible through pastors was also the jesus of your youth. >> that's right. yeah, when i was 15 years old, i heard the gospel story for the first time. it was a transformative story for me. i didn't grow up with much religious teaching. when we came to the united states to iran, we scrubbed our history, the 1980s was not a time to be of iranian origin.
i was deeply spiritual kid. didn't have much instruction. but maybe what it had to could with childhood images of revolutionary iran, the way in which i experienced in a deep and profound way the way that religion has a power to transform a society for good and for bad. i think that really seared itself in my subconscious because i have always been deeply interested in religious matters. but sometime in high school someone shared the gospel story in me. >> what was that that resonated within you? >> it's the greatest story ever told. the god of the heavens and the earth came down to us in the form of a child.
grew into a man who, for our sins, sacrificed himself, and those who believe in him, and in that story, have eternal life, and will never die. it's an amazing, amazing story. and one that hit me deep in my heart. i mean i had a really profound, what christians call an encounter with christ when i heard that story. i became fully devoted, burning with the fire of god, spent the next four or five years really preaching the gospel to everyone i could find. >> did it help you this relationship that you came to have, with jesus, with god, did it help you assimilate into the country? >> well, yes. >> socializing? >> of course. i mean how much more american can you be than being a christian and an evangelical
christian nonetheless? at the time i wasn't even a legal citizen. certainly my conversion to christianity gave me a sense of belonging but i don't want to make it sound as if it were a conversion of convenience. i really, truly, burned with this faith. >> and then you began at some point, and maybe you could tell us about these moments, when you began to have questions. because you were talking to people. who were expressing doubts about the story. and what did you do in response to that? >> i think when -- during my years of preaching this gospel, i would as you say encounter many people who had doubts and who would implant those doubts in me. but i think part of the fundamentalist lifestyle is learning how to wash clear those
doubts, those questions, when confronted with something that does not fit with what you believe, you just simply treat it as an attack. >> the fundamentalist lifestyle, approach. >> which is why to be perfectly honest with you i have an enormous amount of compassion for some of the fundamentalist responses to this book. because i know what it feels like. i remember when i was 15, 16 years old being confronted by people who knew more than me and feeling as though i was being assaulted, that my very identity was under attack. you know the foundation of evangelical christianity is the bible is unerrant and believable, it is perfect. when i went to college and began to study the bible on day one you roif that's not case. that the bible is replete with
the most obvious errors and contradictions. of course it is. it is a document written by hundreds of different hands over thousands of years. of course it is full of these inconsistencies and errors. >> when you encounter that in college, how shocking, surprising a shock to the senses was it for you? >> it's like the rug is pulled out from under you. it's like everything you believe is pulled out from under you. i responded like many have, i was duped. fooled into believing in something that isn't true and really rejected my faith. felt spiritually unmoored. and interestingly enough i went to the catholic jesuit university, it was the jesuits who taught me to read the bible in the first place as an
historical document, encouraged me to not give up on spirituality, but instead look at some other way of expressing my spirituality. they were ones who introduced me to islam. i knew knowing, never knew anything about the koran, but to look into this and see if i could find something that gave me a new outlet to express my spirituality, islam. >> let me try this one out, there is a moment in time and you just alluded to it when you become aware of the inconsistencies that you find in the bible and you begin olook at it more of a historical document and begin to look at it. what's the choice you made and why did you make it to continue to pursue the bible on a historical track, as opposed to
continuing along with what you had been taught? >> as a thing of devotion, yeah. well, i remember you know, i remember something that one of my priests said to me, which was that if it's true, then you shouldn't be afraid of it. and that was eye-opening for me. it made me realize that if what i think the bible says, and what we know is true about the history of this man, you know, jesus of nazareth, conflict, then it's the history that's correct. >> hmm. >> and that the truth in -- truth should not in any way change who you are, what you think. and what's fascinating is that having been in a sense unburdened by the dogma that i had carried with me into the beginnings of my studies of the bible, now being able to cast that off, i was able to go back
to the gospel stories with a fresh set of eyes, to reexamine this person and the world in which he lived, without the pressure of trying to fit him into a specific doctrine or dogma. and the jesus that arose from that experience was unlike anything that i had known before about him. >> reza, let's do this. let's take a break. when we come back let's talk about "zealot", the life and times of jesus of nazareth and we'll start with the title, all right, we're back in a moment.
author of "zealot: the life and times of jesus of nazareth". "zealot", how did you set on this title, what does it mean, we know in today's parlance it can be a loaded term. >> it's provocative, i know that. "zealot" has very negative connotations, but it didn't in jesus time. most jews in jesus time would have said i'm a zealot. but some took that identity to its necessary consequence. which is if you are zealous for the lord and for his law, his law says none but the chosen people can live in the holy land. now this is a land that is currently in jesus' time being occupied by a blood thirsty brutal imperial pagan power
called rome. you get zealots rising up against roam being crushed, and my argument is if you look at jesus' teachings, and put them within his time, you cannot miss the zealotry that is in his doings. >> what is it in his action he that posed quite more threat to the roman entire or did it, than those who claimed to be the messiah or the interpreter of text? >> simply saying i'm the messiah is a tree treas treasonable off.
his job is to recreate the kingdom of david, to usher in the rule of god on the earth. you are are claiming to be ushering out the rule of caesar so everybody person who said i am the messiah was usually killed for it and killed for the crime of treason, sai sedition. there is nothing that's criminal about what happens to him or what happens as a result he undergoes exactly the same tragic end to what every other person before him did. >> why is that the transcendent story? >> why is it after all of these guys only one is called the
messiah? that is a significant thing. i don't in any way diminish the reality of that. that is ultimately the question that the book seeks to answer. but i think that it has less to do with anything jesus himself said and did though what he said and did was remarkable and extraordinary, with what it did with what his followers set and did and what he said about jesus. you have to understand that according to everything that judaism said about the messiah, a dead messiah is not the messiah anymore. if you say you're the messiah and you die without establishing david's kingdom you are not messiah. it is interesting that we refer to everyone else as a failed messiah, we don't refer to jesus as a failed messiah, since he was according to everything, he was just as successful as
everyone else, essentially went home when their messiah was killed, jesus' followers did not. they claim to have had this ecstatic experience in which they experienced the risen jesus. >> the resurrection. >> that's what they said. that's what they said. and spurred by that belief. they began to regoo divine what messiah means. the job of messiah isn't to recreate the kingdom of david. the messiah's kingdom is a heavenly office. it's a celestial office. everything we thought about the messiah was young, because it didn't fit what jesus said and did. it's the reinterpretation of the messiah that turned this movement started by a jewish
>> and welcome back everyone to talk to al jazeera. we are with reza aslan he is the author of "zealot: the life and times of jesus of nazareth". let me start there. who was he? >> he was a jew. and that may seem like a very obvious thing to say. everybody agrees that jesus was a jew. the most literalist funnel christian believes jesus was a jew, maybe a blond haired blue eyed, but a jew. everything he said and did has to be understood in its jewish
context. his teachings were jewish teachings. his thoughts his desires the way he thought about himself the scriptures that he believed in, the god that he worshipped. the religion he understood was judaism and nothing else. that is a profoundly important statement. because it means that when jesus said i am the messiah neither he nor anyone who heard him say that would have heard, i am god. because that would have been inconceivable to a jew. in 5,000 years of jewish scripture tradition history and thought, the idea of a god-man simply does not exist. it means that when he talked in these parable when he talked about the kingdom of god, when he railed about the injustice of
his time he did so as a jew. that is the dividing line between the historian and the believer. the believer wants to think that there's something utterly unique about jesus. and there may very well have been. they want to believe that unlike every other jew in his world he was different. he thought differently about god, he thought differently about the law that he preached something that was wholly new and innovative. and that may very well be the case. unfortunately the only access that we have to his teachings are many, many many years later written by people who already believed that he was god. and who set about proving that belief by writing about him. >> these are the people who will tell you about the miracles. these are the people who will tell you the resurrection story. these are the people who will tell you the nativity story.
>> right. these are theological affirmations, not historical documents. affirmations of faith written by communities of faith. many years after, the purpose of the gospels is not to tell us what happened but what it meant. they're not about revealing facts. they're about revealing truths. again, these people had already made up their minds about what jesus was. the gospels are not a description of a historical man who walked 2,000 years ago. they are an argument about what that man meant. if you want to know who that man was, you have no choice but to put him in the context of his time. an historian's job is to say what's likely. and what's likely about this man is that, like 98% of his fellow
jews he could neither read nor write. that as an artisan and day laborer, he lived at the second lowest rung of the social status of the time, just above the slave and the indigent and the beggar. that he was as a poor marginal jew of the backwoods of galilee, the definition of nobody. but despite that he formed a movement through his charisma, now through his position or his status, that was seen as so threatening to the established orders of his time, a movement on behalf of the marginalized the poor the dispossessed the out casts people like him, that rome seized him tortured him and executed him as a state criminal for the crime of sedition. my question is how do you nont
want to know -- not want to know about that person just the basic facts of his life make him worth knowing. >> worth following? >> worth following. i am a muslim but i have built my world view that the model i set for my world is set by this are peasant 2,000 people, his social teachings, about the reversal of the social order, his insistence for anyone who set as the gate keeper for salvation, that is what i want to be like. >> what is it like for you as a person be a part of a book, be part of an oftentimes fractious debate over its content? >> it means i get it from all sides. lay readers attack me because they say that what i am saying
is so revolutionary, so beyond the pale, academics attack me because they say there's nothing new in this book, we've been saying these things all the time et cetera, et cetera. christians deny me, muslims attack me saying the jesus in this booking violates everything that muslims say about him. islam aphobes attack me. when you write about jesus this is what you have to expect. and i completely expect it. >> you didn't really expect to be in a conversation where you were left to defend your right as a person, as a muslim, to
write about jesus, did you? >> that's true, tony, yeah. look, i knew, i knew that there were going to be people on the fringes who simply by the fact that my faith religion is islam, are going to reject anything i say, based on simply the fact that its the messenger not the message, in other words. what i didn't expect was the sort of soft bigotry of the center, who, far from saying, questioning my right to write a book like this because i'm a muslim, instead questioned my credentials as a scholar of religions to do so. >> how have you responded to that? >> it's funny because despite the fact all of the universities that have educated me and all of the universities that have employed me have come out in
defense of my credentials. no one questions my credentials as a scholar of religions. it's as soon as i write about jesus or christianity, all of a sudden people are questioning my credentials. >> why? >> well i mean -- >> you've thought about it. >> yes. look, obviously there is something else going on here. obviously. there is this notion about who gets to speak for jesus. you know, and i think that having a muslim iranian brown guy who is nevertheless an expert on the bible and on jude aismjudaism, entering a word tht has been monopolized by
christian scholars, rubs them the wrong way, christian scholars, 90% of the books that are written by islam, whether they are attack books or not, are written by christians. but when a scholar who happens to be a muslim writes about jesus all of a sudden the knives come out. >> has this started a conversation? >> this book has started this conversation but i think it started another equally important conversation which is who gets to speak for jesus? i didn't expect that and it's fun to watch that conversation take place. >> reza aslan, thanks for joining us and thanks for appearing on talk to al jazeera.